Body Psychotherapy: What the Mind Forgets, the Body Knows
Posted Dec 27 2009 10:16am
A male client tells his psychotherapist he is having difficulty turning his neck from side to side without experiencing excruciating pain. Another female client reacts to a new relationship, which on the surface looks and feels good, but when her partner speaks in a certain tone to her; she feels a sense of dread in her gut. Another client comes in carrying a baby blanket to help her feel safe from a flood of emotions too painful to ignore, but too difficult to express. What all these clients seem to be exhibiting is a history of un-resolved trauma and emotional pain that is so debilitating, it can only be felt in their bodies, but cannot be expressed verbally. In these types of cases, psychotherapy that accesses the bodies felt senses may be the best treatment to un-earth these chronic symptoms that many suffer from in the aftermath of intense trauma and emotional pain. Some of these treatments include Somatic Experiencing, Whole Body Consciousness, or Psychodrama.
The different types of trauma can come from a host of past experiences such as childhood neglect or abandonment, physical, sexual, or verbal abuse, an auto accident, a divorce, a sudden death of a loved one, or even a natural disaster such as an earthquake. Although these clients may not be able to verbalize their pain, their bodies speak for themselves. There is a knowing that something doesn’t feel quite right. Some of these symptoms show up later as an increased heart rate, sweating, trouble breathing, muscular tension, chronic fatigue, digestive problems, depression, or anxiety. Some of the ways people deal with these traumatic pasts are to numb out, freeze, disassociate, or even go into denial. This is the body’s way of protecting itself from traumatic experiences that were too severe to have been endured at the time they happened. For example, many sexually abused individuals report an “out of body” experience when perpetuated by the abuser. It is as if their body is there, but their mind disappears so as not to have to feel the emotional pain of the abuse. If these body messages are not dealt with, many trauma victims turn to other ways to self soothe or self-medicate such as addictions to food, sex, drugs, alcohol, spending, self-mutilation, and other self defeating behaviors. Other symptoms of un-resolved trauma can stay underground for years and suddenly a major stressor erupts, and a person develops panic attacks or a feeling of being detached or dead inside.
When a person is threatened, the body stores energy to help defend against the danger, however, when the energy is not discharged properly at the time of the event, it becomes blocked in the body only to show up later when there is a life altering event in a person’s life. This is when it usually shows up as anxiety, panic attacks, or even phobias such as fear of flying or fear of driving on freeways.
Other examples of symptoms that occur when un-resolved emotional pain is not dealt with might be denial where a person acts as if an intolerable event never occurred or he or she might be drawn to situations that replicate the original childhood trauma. For example, a person chooses a partner that is an alcoholic similar to an alcoholic parent from his or her family of origin. This type of behavior is a person’s way of unconsciously re-doing the past to get it right. In other words, it is a coping mechanism people use to deal with un-resolved emotional pain that has not been processed.
When unresolved trauma is not worked through, individuals have difficulty setting boundaries. When a person goes through a major traumatic event, he or she becomes disconnected from his or her body. Therefore, he or she doesn’t know where boundaries begin or where they end. They might let others take advantage of them because they do not know how to say “no” or become extremely co-dependent in their relationships.
The goal of body psychotherapy is to be able to begin to correlate thoughts with body sensations. By being able to make the connection, a person learns not to respond in the usual habitual ways. For instance, when you are triggered by a boss or a loved one, you become aware of the body sensations that are being effected and can respond appropriately versus impulsively.
There are various therapeutic methods to track the felt senses in the body. One way to heal trapped energy or past emotional pain is to become present to your bodies sensations by noticing the subtle changes that occur when you are upset or when you feel joy.
“In somatic experiencing you initiate your own healing by re-integrating lost or fragmented positions of your essential self.” (Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter A. Levine, 1997). This is a method by which the psychotherapist helps the client access the felt senses in the body when he shares both difficult material from the past, as well as experiences that are pleasant.
As we develop, we learn to disconnect from our body awareness through the socialization processes. We learn to role model from parents, teachers, and other authority figures that teach us what is right and wrong. When we begin to explore the world around us, we are told to “sit down” or “be still” when what we should be doing is exploring our environments with a sense of curiosity and excitement. These messages encourage us to shut down losing touch with the energy force that lies within us.
“The gap between body and mind stems from programming that encourages us to be quiet and repress our feelings in the interest of being stoic and well behaved.” (What’s your body telling you? Listening to your body’s signals to stop anxiety, erase self-doubt, and achieve true wellness, Steve Sisgold, 2009).
Some examples of whole body consciousness are learning how to deep breathe, scanning the whole body for changes and witnessing the sensation as they move, meditation, or learning how to alter body positions.
When you expand your chest, you are more likely to access uplifting and positive thoughts versus shrinking your shoulders which represents a negative thought process. In meditation, you learn to be a curious observer of your thoughts instead of trying to control them. You learn how to regulate your reactions towards yourself, others, and situations instead of acting out inappropriately. Suddenly your relationships improve because you are no longer a victim of un-processed trauma where energy has been stagnated, but rather the energy now flows more freely and smoothly and your reactions come from a more balanced and mindful place. You begin to be able to cope with un-comfortable situations in a more peaceful fashion making decisions from a grounded position versus not thinking things through.
Another type of body psychotherapy is psychodrama which is a type of role play that allows individuals to rework relationships with others and with themselves. It is a way to correct distorted views of how they might have seen others. This is done through role reversal by putting themselves in another person’s position. It allows them to feel re-empowered and restore a sense of safety where they might have felt helpless in the past. It allows individuals to see how others might be viewing them by receiving feedback so they can change self-destructive behavior patterns.
Finally, when you learn to access your body’s innate wisdom and investigate emotions that have been repressed, you get the opportunity to un-leash un-tapped energy so that you can move more freely and easily. By releasing deep seated pain and old wounds, you begin to feel empowered and nothing or no one will be able to hold you back from being the creative, resourceful, and brilliant person you are meant to be.
Sherry Gaba, LCSW, is a Licensed Psychotherapist and Life Coach in Agoura. She specializes in addictions, trauma, divorce, single parenting, mindfulness skills, and somatic experiencing. She is the Psychotherapist on Celebrity Rehab 2 and 3 with Dr. Drew Pinsky on VH1, as well as a contributing author to the “Conscious Entrepreneur” and “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People.” She can be reached at 818-756-3338 firstname.lastname@example.org,www.sgabatherapy.com.